2016 seemed to be a very bad year for celebrity deaths (which, as it turns out, was more about perception than reality – or was it?). With the 89th Academy Awards taking place tomorrow, I thought I’d take a look at former Oscar winners who passed in the last year. Some are very well known – think Prince or Debbie Reynolds – while most are not nearly so famous, but each of them had an influence on cinema, and each were honored for their contributions by the Academy. Most of them will appear in this year’s In Memoriam, except for a few (such as Vilmos Zsigmond) who were included in last year’s show, due to having passed prior to the show’s air-date. For our purposes, I’m focusing on those Oscar winners that have ties to movies with a bit of a geek-culture bent – Science Fiction and Fantasy, Noir, Thrillers, Comedies – and movies that meant a lot to me growing up. This means that the aforementioned Debbie Reynolds won’t appear (her closest geek connection was through her daughter, Carrie Fisher), but Prince will (due to the original songs he did for Batman). Without further ado, our own Oscars In Memoriam for 2016 (everyone listed in alphabetical order). NB: All years given under Wins are the years the awards were given; the movies typically came out the year before, and all other dates reflect this.
Field: Art Direction
Wins: Two – Barry Lyndon (1976); The Madness of King George (1995)
Born: February 5, 1921
Died: March 10, 2016
Geek Connection: Bond series, Dr. Strangelove, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Around the World in Eighty Days (1957)
Ken Adam (sometimes credited as Ken Adams) was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two of them, for 1976’s Barry Lyndon, and 1995’s The Madness of King George. He was also involved in one of my favorite movies of all time, the original Around the World in Eighty Days (1957) starring David Niven. Not only that, but he was the Production Designer on no fewer than seven Bond films, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the amazing and experimental Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He had geek cred before it existed.
Field: Direction, Producer, Writer
Wins: Two – The Deer Hunter (1979) (Director and Picture)
Born: February 3, 1939
Died: July 2, 2016
Geek Connection: Silent Running, The Deer Hunter, Year of the Dragon
Cimino may have won for his work on The Deer Hunter, but he was perhaps even more well known for his work on Heaven’s Gate, widely considered to be one of Hollywood’s biggest flops (an opinion that is changing gradually with Cimino’s Director’s Cut released a couple of years ago). He also wrote the screenplays for a Dirty Harry film (Magnum Force), and for the Bruce Dern vehicle and under-rated SF classic Silent Running.
James “Jim” Clark
Field: Film Editing
Wins: One – The Killing Fields (1984)
Born: May 24, 1931
Died: February 25, 2016
Geek Connection: The World is Not Enough, Marathon Man, The Last Remake of Beau Geste
Jim Clark won his Academy Award for the very serious Killing Fields, but he was also editor for movies as diverse as Charade (1963) and Marty Feldman’s The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977). He’s also the second notable on the list to have a Bond connection, having done the editing on 1999’s The World is Not Enough. And to top things off, he edited Marathon Man, one of my favorite thrillers from the 70s.
Wins: One – The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (2002)
Born: November 22, 1923
Died: August 17, 2016
Geek Connection: The Lonely Guy, An Alan Smithee Production: Burn Hollywood Burn, Silver Streak, See No Evil, Hear No Evil
Canadian-born Arthur Hiller (yay Canada!) is perhaps best know to people of my generation as the former head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He used to come out every year and give his spiel on the Oscars, getting a few moments in the limelight. At the time, I had no idea who he was. If I’d known that he was the director behind such Gene Wilder hits as Silver Streak and Hear No Evil, See No Evil, I would have likely been much more appreciative on seeing him onscreen. He also directed Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy, and was perhaps best known for directing Love Story, a film for which he was nominated.
Wins: One – Cool Hand Luke (1968) (Best Supporting Actor)
Born: February 18, 1925
Died: February 28, 2016
Geek Connection: the Naked Gun films, Airport, Earthquake
Truly part of the Hollywood establishment, George Kennedy accumulated almost 200 credits in his 60-year career. Growing up, I knew him best for his role as Ed Hocken, straight-man to Leslie Neilsen’s Frank Drebin in TV’s Police Squad and the Naked Gun movies. He actually began his career in comedy as well, starting out on The Phil Silvers Show in the 50s, but he tried his hand at just about everything from disaster films (Airport, Earthquake) to westerns (Rawhide, Have Gun – Will Travel) to prison dramas (Cool Hand Luke, for which he won his Oscar).
Field: Art Direction
Wins: Two – Patton (1970), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) (both for Best Art Direction)
Born: June 17, 1921
Died: December 24, 2016
Geek Connection: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Boys from Brazil, Robin and Marion
Spanish-born Gil Parrondo started off with art and production design for a number of television shows, but graduated to film, being involved in a bunch of war films, and eventually in some great thrillers. His first screen credit, however is The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, giving him a ton of geek cred. I can only imagine what it would have been like to do the art direction in a film beside master stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen – the two also worked together two years later on The 3 Worlds of Gulliver.
Field: Original Song/Soundtrack
Wins: One – Purple Rain (1985) (Best Music, Original Song Score)
Born: June 7, 1958
Died: April 21, 2016
Geek Connection: Batman (1989)
Prince’s inclusion here may seem tenuous at first, but his Purpleness was not only involved in the over-the-top camp Batman movie of the late 80s, but his music has appeared in nearly every genre over multiple media. Just check his IMDB page. For myself, Batman was important because it also introduced me to the wonder that is Danny Elfman the composer, as opposed to Danny Elfman the lead singer for Oingo Boingo that I already knew. Prince, for his part, was much, much more than a composer; he was a force of nature, changing music and what music could do and be in movies. Without Purple Rain, I doubt we would have seen the revival in Hollywood musicals that led to Chicago, Moulin Rouge (the aesthetic of which owes visually as well as musically to Prince, in my opinion), right through to this past year’s La La Land (which admittedly owes more to Gene Kelly and Singin’ in the Rain, at least from an aesthetic and choreography perspective). But Prince is everywhere in Hollywood, and will continue to be so for some time to come.
Field: Art Department
Wins: One – Heaven Can Wait (1979) (Best Art Direction)
Born: April 16, 1928
Died: November 19, 2016
Geek Connection: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Conspiracy Theory
Paul Sylbart was involved with some of Hollywood’s best films of the 70s and 80s (Kramer vs. Kramer), some of the schmaltziest (Prince of Tides), and even flirted with soft-core Hollywood porn (Sliver), but his geek cred comes from two films that both deal with the way authority abuses the little guy: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Conspiracy Theory. The latter is one of those films, like Galaxy Quest or Enemy of the State that, if I’m flipping channels and see it on, I’ll settle in and watch until it’s over.
Wins: One – Star Wars (1978) (Best Sound)
Born: November 29, 1925
Died: February 17, 2016
Geek Connection: Star Wars, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Caddyshack, The Return of the Living Dead – shall I go on?
Where do I start with a man like Ray West? His sound engineering only led to one Oscar, but he was involved in a ton of movies I love, including the best Star Trek movie, as well as a ton of other movies I could have put under Geek Connection above (Cujo, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, Alan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold). Sound is such an integral, and yet often overlooked, part of movies. Just try watching, well, pretty much anything with the background sound turned off.
Field: Visual Effects
Wins: One – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) (Best Effects, Visual Effects)
Died: April 16, 2016
Geek Connection: Did you see the movie he won the Oscar for? Add in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi and Dune (1984) plus more
Our second West, but this one a visual effects specialist. In addition to the movies I’ve mentioned above, West was also involved with The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Dracula (1974 – with Jack Palance as the Count!), DragonHeart, and many, many more. More recently, he worked on genre movies Doom and City of Ember, maintaining his connections to geek culture.
Wins: One – Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) (Best Cinematography)
Born: June 16, 1930
Died: January 1, 2016
Geek Connection: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Witches of Eastwick, Real Genius
Zsigmond was an extremely prolific Cinematographer, with almost 100 credits to his name. He did a ton of cool films, as well as such classics (not to say classics aren’t cool!) as The Deer Hunter, Deliverance, and The Black Dahlia. Many films he was involved with won Oscars, although he only won the one himself.
There you have it, our own In Memoriam for tonight’s Academy Awards. Winning artists who passed in 2016 worked on films that touch every geek’s heart: Star Wars and Star Trek, Raiders and Alan Quatermain, Bond and Bourne. 2016 did take a lot of great ones away, and 2017 will inevitable do so as well – already it’s taken William Peter Blatty (Jaws) and Richard Portman (Star Wars, with more to follow. And the list of geek culture artists who passed without winning an Oscar is even longer, beginning with Alan Rickman early in the year and ending with Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. Heck, Bill Paxton just died this morning as I was writing this up. Not to be glib, but at least we’ll always have their work to enjoy and watch over and over again. Rest in Peace.